Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Review and Analysis: The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell

       I began my Amazon and Goodreads reviews of this book by stating: “This is what science fiction ought to be," and I concluded the reviews with the statements: "Strongly recommended for the thoughtful reader, including readers of mainstream and literary fiction. Not recommended for fans of hard SF or space opera.”  I read one negative review by someone who had to be one of the latter.  The spiritual quest that forms the central theme of the book obviously left this person cold, and certain scientific facts such as a possibly flawed portrayal of the red star called Alpha Centauri C or Proxima (Centauri) drove this reviewer to express great scorn.  This person obviously is somewhat lacking in the ability to see beyond mundane SF and to suspend disbelief!
I could write a thesis about this book, but I'll restrict the present discussion to two aspects, beginning with the technique.
The plot is really quite simple: The SETI project picks up beautiful godlike music from the Alpha Centauri system and the Jesuit order mounts an expedition to find the planet at the urging of Fr. Emilio Sandoz.  The group of close friends who form the mission crew arrive at Rakhat and make first contact with the Runa, learning later that the planet harbors a second ILF called the Jana’ata.  They remain woefully clueless about the culture and the relationship between the two species until it’s too late. 
The POV does not conform to the rule of consistency (it changes from one character to another under the overall umbrella of an omnipotent narrator) and yet the action moves forward with a seamless relentlessness in a subtle give-and-take between past and present.  I can imagine the author outlining the plot and then manipulating the alternate sections in order to produce the wonderful suspense.  The odd thing is, you know from the beginning that the mission ended badly; you're introduced immediately to the appalling aftermath.  And yet you don't know why the project ended in this way; you learn first in little morsels, bits of the future, dropped at intervals into the plot.  I found it impossible to predict what was going to happen next.  I correctly anticipated only one thing, something I think I can say without playing the spoiler: I assumed all along that there would be another expedition to Rakhat and that it would form the subject matter of the second volume, The Children of God.  And I believe I was correct in that.
As a conlanger, I have to make a quick remark about the use of language in the first contact.  Emilio Sandoz is a skilled linguist, responsible for communicating with the extraterrestrials.  I don’t know how much work the author did on the two alien languages, but we have at least naming languages here, and a few rules of word formation are stated.  If I ever read the book again, I’ll make a list of the words.  But likely somebody else in the conlanging community has already done that.
The book is much more than its technique, of course.  I’m not going to touch on the subtleties of characterization here, even though that’s what the book is about.  Instead, I’m going to talk about the theme by comparing the book to my own writings.  That may seem a bit audacious, because, while I think I’m a good writer, I definitely lack Mary Doria Russell’s intense ability to focus.  However, two people whose opinions I respect have commented that my books reminded them of The Sparrow, and that’s what impelled me to read it.
And we do write on similar themes.  I've written three first-contact stories.  In the novella "Monster Is in the Eye of the Beholder" (which is quite focused, actually) the first contact with a very bizarre species has an outcome every bit as disastrous as in The Sparrow.  Both books present a flawed contact between two cultures that are incompatible, although in my book it's the humans and not the ILFs who precipitate the tragedy.  In The Sparrow an innocent human cultural practice disrupts the status quo of the alien culture (I won't spoil it by saying what it is), while in my book it is a human psychological breakdown that does the harm.
My two-volume novel The Termite Queen deals with a first contact between Earthers and the intelligent termite species called the Shshi. However, neither TQ nor “Monster” deals with THE first contact, the very first time humans encountered aliens.  That event happened in the 28th century, when Earthers met Prf. A'a'ma's bird people, and it forms the topic of my big old floppy WIP The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars.  Since then Earth has formed amicable relationships not only with the Krisí’i’aidá but with the Te Quornaz and the Pozú, and they know of the existence of many other intelligent lifeforms.  Meeting the termite people is unique only in the difficulty of communication. 
Both TQ and The Sparrow have anthropologists and linguists for main characters, a circumstance that would not be unusual for any first contact situation.  However, I had the feeling all the way through The Sparrow that this crew was fragile, undertrained, and clueless about what they were getting into.  When you assume God is underpinning your mission – that a sort of divine fate is at work and God will keep his eye on you and protect you as he does the sparrow – you're very likely to get into trouble.  The Termite Queen crew is not like that.  Earthers have had too much experience with aliens.  Space travel is ubiquitous, a joint undertaking by several alien species, organized on a regional galactic scale.  Both the crews and the scientists have wide experience with off-world missions.  Of course, that doesn't keep them from making mistakes, but it does make them well qualified to take on a first-contact project.
The Sparrow was published in 1996, so the year 2019, when the book starts, was 23 years in the future.  That can seem like a long time, but that date is now only seven years off and obviously we aren’t going to be mining asteroids and using them for space travel by that date.  This is why I place my stories in a time way beyond any possibility that a person of today might still be alive to know what actually developed, and I leave the period between the present and at least a hundred years off purposely vague.  The only thing I mention happening in the 21st century is a cycle of disastrous religious wars, and the way things are going on Earth, that certainly is within the realm of possibility.
But Russell isn't out to write future history as I am, so the connection between the present moment and what happens when we get where we are going is less important than the events themselves. Her purpose is to explore the relationship between God and human beings – does God exist?  Does he interact with his creation?  Should we hold God responsible for the evils that happen in our world or on other worlds?
Now, while some of these questions come up in The Termite Queen, answering them is not my purpose.  In my future, society has developed a humanist culture and those questions are already answered.  God has moved into the realm of myth, from which you can draw wisdom but which gives you no absolutes because the nature of god or even whether a god exists can’t be known (Mythmaker Precept No. l).  People might study god(s) and beliefs academically but ordained clerics and  religious institutions no longer exist, and people generally don't concern themselves the role of gods in their lives.
     That being said, the end of both books has spiritual implications and is strangely similar: the achievement of at least partial redemption.  The whole final section of The Termite Queen is called “Absolution.”  In The Sparrow Sandoz gains forgiveness and absolution through speaking and through words – Absolvo te, says Father Candotti in the traditional language of Catholic confession.  Griffen Gwidian gains forgiveness through personal atonement, although words would have been enough had circumstances been different.  Kaitrin’s absolution comes from a symbolic release of guilt – the “dark bird” that flies away and settles on a scapegoat. 
The strange thing about The Sparrow is that even among these Jesuits, these most Christian of men, nothing is said about the central doctrine of Christ’s vicarious atonement for the sins of humanity.  The emphasis is on God the Father, not God the Son.  My humanist book ends with a resolution that is more conventionally Christian than the end of The Sparrow, albeit portrayed in a context that is completely alien.   
So I would conclude by saying, yes, there are similarities between my Termite Queen and Russell’s The Sparrow, and they lie not merely in plot points (the first contact, the off-world expedition and the preparations for it, the linguistic-anthropologist characters, the use of constructed language).  There are also thematic similarities.  I would hope that some of you who like The Sparrow would also be moved to try reading my books as well.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Why I Support Universal Health Insurance; the Promised Addendum to Mythmakers: Compassion

       In a response to a comment on Mythmakers: Compassion, One of the Things That Makes Us Human, I said I ought to write a post on why I'm for universal health coverage, so here I am doing so!  I'm speaking from my own experience and my own predilections, which may not be other peoples.  And I ended up getting much more political here than I intended.
      One of the things I dislike about modern society is its complexity.  I say, "Simplify, simplify, simplify!"  I just took a look at the Wikipedia article on the "Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act" and as far as I'm concerned, it's still way too complicated.  It's still predicated on the idea that an individual has to buy his or her own insurance from a private company.  It was made that complicated to make it more "palatable" to the conservatives (which it didn't really do).  But I don't think it does the job it ought to do.
       During my lifetime I have spent gobs of money on health insurance.  The rates went up constantly even when my employer provided a coverage plan.  When I quit my job in 1993 (I was only 53) to take care of two elderly family members, I was on COBRA for awhile -- I think it was over $300.00 a month.  When COBRA ended,  I couldn't get coverage because I was taking medicine for high blood pressure.  Otherwise, I was fit as a fiddle.  So I had go through a whole ritual of applying for Blue Cross, being turned down, and then applying for CUHIP (I think that means Colorado Uninsurable Health Insurance Program).  I got into that, but the premium went up by buckets every year.  By the time I turned 65 and was eligible for Medicare, I had cut my coverage to $5000 annual deductible and the premium was somewhere in the $500-$600/mo range.  And I had remained healthy all during that time.   I could have had no insurance, continued to see my doc once a year, had a few tests run, and buy my Rx's, and still saved money.  But the thing is, you can't predict the future -- I could have been in an auto accident or I could have come down with cancer, and then without health insurance I would run out of savings in short order. 
       If a universal health insurance program had existed, I could have just continued to pay the premium at the going rate, the same as I paid when I was working, and saved money, time, and hassle.
       My mother's situation was quite different.  She was a public school teacher and in her day, teachers didn't have Social Security because each state had its own retirement plan. (I don't know what the situation is now.)  Therefore, she didn't qualify for Medicare, either, but you can buy into Medicare by paying a premium.  When she turned 65 in 1974, she didn't want to buy Medicare -- it cost the whopping sum of something like $37.00/mo (ridiculously low compared to the situation today), and she thought that was horrible.  But I insisted that she join up, and, boy, am I glad I did, because later in her life she had gobs of medical problems, and the premiums, even though they went up over the years, were well outweighed by the benefits, even though my mother never had any supplemental insurance to cover the copays and deductibles.
       And the Medicare program works great!  People don't realize how well it works!  In all my many dealings with the system, I never had one problem!  The only problem I've had since I went on Medicare back in 2005 was with my doctor.  I was paying for supplemental insurance with AARP, because I like to be able to go to specialists of my choice without a referral.  This doesn't pay the doctor as much, however, as an Advantage Plan does, which is like being in an HMO.  Last year my primary care physician sent out letters saying, basically, get into an Advantage Plan or I'm dropping you as a patient.  So I went into an Advantage Plan, because it's almost impossible to find another doctor who will take new Medicare patients.  It turns out that the Advantage Plan has no premiums, only copays, so I'm saving a lot of money by doing that; I really don't understand how that works, because if possible I avoid doctors like they had the plague, so they're certainly not making any money off me!  So far I've paid only $45 copay for the entire year. 
       Anyway, Medicare is a great model for what a national health insurance program ought to be!  I think it's called a single-payer system.  Why is that so bad?  It's much simpler!  All people pay a fee (or call it a tax if you must), probably graduated by income, throughout their entire life, and get the medical care they need throughout their life.  Doctors must treat everybody equally; they can have a specialty, but they can't discriminte by a patient's age or affluence.  Part of the revenue is dedicated to caring for the indigent, because we are a compassionate people.  There will always be those who can't or don't work for whatever reason, and even if they aren't "deserving," we don't take them out and shoot them.  There have to be controls on costs, of course, and that means on doctor's and hospital's fees, too.  Doctors obviously require many years of education to learn their skill and so deserve a better-than-average remuneration, but if they went into the field simply to acquire great wealth, then they went into medicine for the wrong reason.
       In my future history, a type of system like this is in place, and it's for the whole world, not just little pieces of it, because humans are all one species and deserve equal treatment under the Mythmaker ethic.  In the present world, everything in the USA is fragmented by states.  I find that complicated and wasteful.   Laws should be uniform and resources should be pooled and utilized equally, so that Mississippi or whatever doesn't have a lower standard of care than Massachusetts or New York.  It just makes common sense to me.
       None of this is easy; it took the future Earth a hundred years to work out the details of the Global Unification Charter and something like 30 years for all the nations of Earth to ratify it.  And people had to be willing to give up some freedoms in order to achieve true equality.  But that's another story.
       Now, to the question of whether this type of change will put a financial burden on future generations, I say, so what?  YOU DON'T GET ANYTHING IN LIFE WITHOUT PAYING FOR IT!  People seem to forget that.  They think you can just cut taxes and everything fixes itself because people have more money to spend, etc.  But I don't believe that.  My experiences in life have shown me that IF YOU WANT THE SERVICES OF GOVERNMENT (and why else does government exist except to provide services?) YOU HAVE TO PAY FOR IT!  (And certainly you have to cut waste and fraud and keep costs down.  That may be one of the hardest things to achieve for us self-serving humans -- getting rid of the pork and the bribery, bridges to nowhere and the $800 screwdrivers.)
       Yes, I'm very liberal in my views, and I'm pleased to be so.  I always vote for tax increases locally, and I just cast my vote a couple of days ago for Pres. Obama.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Mythmakers: Compassion, One of the Things That Makes Us Human

       An earlier Mythmaker post, Mythmakers: A Diversion into the Political, was provoked by the incident at the RNC where someone threw nuts at a black camerawoman and said, "This how we feed the animals." In that essay, I discussed how human beings are all the same species, sharing the same DNA, and therefore are entitled to be treated equally.  I cited Precept No. 17: There are creatures on this planet [amended later to in the universe] who speak, form symbols, and share emotions; these may be called human.
       Now another article, an op-ed piece written by Nicholas D. Kristof, spurs me to elaborate further on a related topic.
       The article deals with a man who in midlife decided he wanted to do what he had always wanted to do, so he quit his job and didn't have sufficient funds to pay for health insurance.  He then developed prostate cancer, didn't get treatment soon enough because of lack of resources, and subsequently died from it.  The article in question promotes Obamacare. I happen to support  universal health insurance, but my purpose today is not political but humanist.  Many of the responses to the article demonstrated a callous rejection of one of the essential qualities that make us human.
       To quote from the article: “ 'Not sure why I’m to feel guilty about your friend’s problem,' Terry from Oregon wrote on my blog. 'I take care of myself and mine, and I am not responsible for anyone else.'       
       "Bruce wrote that many people in hospitals are there because of their own poor choices: 'Smoking, obesity, drugs, alcohol, noncompliance with medical advice. Extreme age and debility, patients so sick, old, demented, weak, that if families had to pay one-tenth the cost of keeping the poor souls alive, they would instantly see that it was money wasted.' "
       The more often I read these statements, the more arrogant and insensate they appear to me.  These people may be creationists for all I know, but they apparently are fervent supporters of the concept of survival of the fittest!  And they may be "good Christians," but if they are, they have forgotten two New Testament admonitions (Mythmaker philosophy is eclectic, willing to extract whatever is valuable from any spiritual writing):
        From John 8:7 (KJV): "He who is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone."
        From Matthew 7:1, 5 (KJV): "Judge not, that ye be not judged. ... Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye."
        To quote from Kristof:  "The proportion of Republicans who agree that 'it is the responsibility of the government to take care of people who can’t take care of themselves' has slipped from 58 percent in 2007 to just 40 percent today.'"
       These same people are probably anti-abortion, but why care for a fetus any more than you would care for your Alzheimer-stricken parent -- neither can take care of itself or has any ability to contribute to society or its own welfare.  The argument would be -- but the fetus has the potential to contribute.  OK, but don't we owe something to our parent, for the contribution it made to our own lives in the past?  Do we simply lay our failing family members out on the curb and sit rocking on the porch, sipping lemonade and watching while they die?  Quite a reality show, yes?
       Kristof goes on to present counterarguments to the implications of this statement, only one of which I will consider here:  "A civilized society compensates for the human propensity to screw up. ... To err is human, but so is to forgive.  Compassion isn’t a sign of weakness, but of civilization."
       So this brings me to a discussion of certain Mythmaker precepts.  I believe Mr. Kristof would find them compatible with his own philosophy. 
       Precept No. 4: Humans must take responsibility for their own behavior, not seeking to put blame on imposed rules (of deity or human) or on fate, chance, or the intervention or willfulness of deity.
       I discussed this one in my earlier post, Beginning My Mythmaker Analysis.  It's central tenet of the philosophy -- when you screw up, you don't try to blame somebody else and you don't try to blame society or a warped code of behavior.  Humans have the power to do this where no other animal does, because we have developed reason and a sense of right and wrong.  We don't act merely on survival instinct.
       However, the seemingly heartless absolutism of this is immediately tempered by Precept No. 5: 
       Humans will never succeed absolutely in achieving these goals; nevertheless striving for right action is its own purpose.
       Humans are an imperfect work-in-progress and they will always fail in this attempt to take responsibility and to find the Right Way.  Therefore, we have to forgive -- to show compassion for one another and to help our fellow humans live up to their responsibilities.  Whether that is a responsibility of government may be debated in the 21st century, but it becomes one of the two primary functions of government in the Earth of the 27th century and beyond. (The other is keeping  the peace among these contentious and imperfect creatures called humans.)
       The Precepts never actually mention the word "compassion," but Precept No. 17 (cited at the top of this post) introduces humans' ability to share emotions as one of the fundamental characteristics of what makes us human.  If a human shares someone's grief and pain (the ability is called empathy), that person instinctively wants to do something to alleviate the suffering.  What is that but compassion?  Fortunately, we see many true examples of this human feeling in the 21st century, but it is regrettable that a such a sizable majority of our fellow species members seems to reject it.
       So, the empathy that impels us to care for the weak and less fortunate -- those who can't take of themselves -- is a distinctly human trait.   This may be to our detriment as a species, because it throws off the balance of nature (there are too many humans on the Earth and we are very good at finding ways to keep ourselves alive), but however that may be, I would not want to exist in a world where the dominant intelligent species lacks qualities of compassion and empathy and the instinct to take care of the less fortunate.

       The next Mythmaker post will delve more deeply into what it means to be human.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Book Review: Nocturne; Nine Stories, by Peter Marshall Bell

       Peter Bell was born in 1959 and died from the complications of HIV in 1994.  He studied languages and traveled extensively, served in the Peace Corps, and taught at the French American International School in San Francisco for a number of years.  He wrote both fiction and poetry but never published his writings.  Now his former partner, Raymond Boyington, has taken on the task of editing and publishing his works.  Jack A. Urquhart’s insightful review states all the pertinent facts about this collection, so I will turn immediately to my own eminently favorable impressions.

       Four of the stories in the collection particularly stick in my mind.
       First, the title story, “Nocturne,” a study of a psychologically troubled child forced to exist among parents and others who are indifferent to his psychic difficulties.  The story reminded me of Conrad Aiken’s “Silent Snow, Secret Snow,” where another child gradually descends into psychosis unnoticed.  In both stories the child makes every effort to dissimulate, to hide his strangeness from everybody, and in both the child succeeds so well that the only possible outcome is one that shakes and shocks the reader.
       Second, “The Enemy,” where an Arab fighter (a mere boy) and an American (we presume) are thrown together in a shed during one of our current wars.  Somehow even in these brutal circumstances they manage to achieve a certain level of the empathy that makes us human, something war attempts to destroy.  The Arab says it: “We are only taught to have enemies,” whereupon another shocking ending ensues, one which only reinforces this intense tale’s denunciation of war.
       Third, “The Wound,” an understated, unsentimental, yet hauntingly emotional story of waiting for death.  The story was originally written in French and is here translated with beautiful sensitivity by Jack A. Urquhart.
       Finally, the strange ghost story, “We Have Always Been the Same Person,” which is the longest tale in the collection and the most ambiguous.  Told in the first person in a quite formal literary style, it contains meticulous description.  The narrator meets with a ghost who appears to be the same person as himself, only in female form.  Perhaps that’s the key – coming to the realization of one’s sexual identity.  The end seems to imply that the purpose for the continuing existence of the hotel where most of the story is laid has now been realized.  However, the last paragraphs of the tale explain nothing; they purposely leave it up to the reader to interpret the meaning of what has happened.  One can even quote the last few lines without giving anything away.
       “What am I supposed to believe?" I blurted in desperation.
       “You should believe what you think is the truth," Laurent answered, quickly and decisively.
       “And how am I supposed to know that?" I finally queried.
       Laurent said nothing.
       He still has not answered my question.

        I recommend this collection to anyone who enjoys well-written short fiction.  Peter Bell displays a true affinity for his craft and it is indeed a sad loss to literature (and on many levels) that he lived only to the age of 35.  Now, however, thanks to the collection’s editor and publisher Raymond Boyington, Peter Bell’s achievements will not be forgotten.

       You can buy Nocturne (Kindle edition) on Amazon.  I also recommend Jack A. Urquhart's collection of short fiction entitled So They Say, also available at Amazon.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Mythmakers: Human Relationships

       The earlier posts on Mythmaker philosophy dealt with the nature and existence of god(s) and the nature and evils of religion as opposed to the spiritual.  I was also diverted into a discussion of what makes us human, although I'll delve further into this topic later, since it encompasses more Precepts than simply No. 17.  Today I'll talk about how those who can be called human relate to one another.
       I've selected three Precepts that deal specifically with relationships, although the subject arises elsewhere and these three can be applied in other ways as well. There is a lot of overlap among the Precepts.

12. To achieve understanding of the unlike is a divine goal.
       When the Mythmakers refer to something as "divine," they use the word in a general context, i.e. expressing a quality generally attributed to god, even if that god itself cannot be proved to exist.  It's metaphorical, in effect.  Thus, one of the highest things we can achieve is a full acceptance and realization that what is unlike ourselves is of equal value and worthy of equal consideration.  It implies we must not only tolerate diversity, we must learn to appreciate it actively, to seek it out and educate ourselves about it.  It certainly addresses the human proclivity to fear, dislike, and even seek to destroy what is unfamiliar, and it would play into the scenario that will arise when Earthers make first contact with extraterrestrials (and did so in my future history).
       In a later part of "The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars," where Capt. Nikalishin and his crew finally make the first contact with the Bird people, this Precept gets cited three times, once when the crew is entertaining themselves by recounting myths about birds from their various ethnicities (in a section I'll unfortunately probably have to cut out of the final version for the sake of brevity); and twice in the section where the Captain performs a marriage ceremony for two crewmembers (I'll probably have to cut that, too -- how painful!)  After all, when two people form a pair bond, that's what they're doing -- vowing to achieve an "understanding of the unlike."
13. Love is as unknowable as deity, but every soul attests that it exists.
       This reinforces no. 12 and begins to make it more specific.  It equates the term "love" in all its positive meanings with the understanding of the unlike, and the statement that it is inherent in the human "soul" -- the thing that makes us human -- is a display of optimism. 
       But the precept doesn't define "love."  The word is one of the most ambiguous in the English language.  I addressed that in "Monster Is in the Eye of the Beholder," where Kaitrin Oliva is discussing the concept of love with the Kal Communicator Hetsip-dohná:

At the end of the day we were talking about the Inj word “love” – about the Grieks’ concepts of agape and eros and the sloppiness of our contemporary language, with its single word “love” that could mean any number of things. 
Hetsip-dohná was puzzled.  “We have a word, marloha, that means mutual caring – the feelings of one part for another, so that if one component flourishes, the whole is happy, and if one component dies, the remainder sorrows.  And we have another, ketris, that means also mutual caring, but it is that of the being for its society and of the society for all its beings.  And yet both these words mean more; it is difficult to speak of these things in the Chu-sneian tongue.  But we have still another word, bahara, that means – the pleasure two individuals feel in each other’s company, much as you and I do.”
I felt honored by that statement.  Marloha is perhaps akin to our maternal or familial love, ketris may be closer to agape, and bahara – well, the Grieks had a word for that, too – philia – but today it is simply called ‘friendship’!”
Then he queried me about eros, which he had not comprehended at all, and I found myself trying to explain sexual love to a being who could not practice it or achieve any intellectual conception of it.  We ended with a discussion of lust, jealousy, and other concepts that were even more foreign to him. 
“You mean this love of yours can be destructive?” he asked incredulously.  “Then I can see why you would call its meaning ‘sloppy.’  It’s not logical that the same word should possess such opposite connotations, both positive and negative.”
Then I really laughed.  “If you ever get to know us better, Lord Hetsip-dohná, you will learn that the human species is not natively very logical.  In the Age of the Fantasists there was a fictional off-worlder named Spock who made that same point repeatedly.”

14. Let men and women make the vows of love in the music of the bedchamber, not with empty words.
       Finally we have a Precept that addresses sexual love.  Superficially, this seems to say that contracts, pair-bonding, marriage -- whatever you chose to call the ceremony of union -- are unnecessary -- go ahead and jump into bed and have a good time.  This is the interpretation that appeals to 28th-century adolescents! However, the operative words here are "vows" and "empty."  When a vow is made, it implies a permanent commitment, and it can only be made with words, but if these words are "empty" -- spoken only as lip-service -- then the vow means nothing.
       Note also that while the Precept states "men and women," it doesn't say, only one man with one woman.  It can just as easily be applied to two men, two women, or even polygamous relationships.  It also doesn't specify that these relationships must be for the purpose of producing offspring. 
       When Robbin Nikalishin was a 15-year-old student at the Epping Science Academy, he got a girl pregnant and there is a scene where Prf. Alise Doone, who oversees the Academy's humanities curriculum, is counseling him.  Robbie has only the dimmest notion of his responsibilities in this matter.  The following exchange takes place:
       “Now, the Precept you’re probably finding most interesting at this moment of your life is Number 14, about making vows of love in the music of the bedchamber, not with empty words.
       "It was under the apple trees,” mumbled Robbie.
       Prf. Doone made a little throat noise as if she were attempting to laugh, or trying not to.  “The important word there is vows.  Did you and Sharlina make any vows?”
       “No,” he said somewhat disgustedly.  “We just … did it.  There were a few empty words, though.  More like grunts.”     
       Prf. Doone appeared to be strangling again.  “The point of that Precept is that ceremonial words or contracts can’t make a union holy.  When two people can achieve a truly holy union, it’s a highly intangible and fragile thing, spiritually blessed and very personal and unique.  That state can be called marriage, whether there is a ceremony or not."
      “That never happened,” he said.  “I’m not sure that sort of thing exists.”
         Maybe my next Mythmaker post will be a presentation of the extended scene in which this brief exchange occurs.  There is also a point later in "The Man Who found Birds among the Stars" when, as the adult Captain struggles with his own failures as a human being, he rehearses in his mind many of the Precepts and their meanings.  In fact, this ponderous opus taken as a whole is probably a much better exposition of the Precepts than I am managing to present here.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars, Ch. 2


I'm presenting here Chapter 2 of my unfinished novel, "The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars." It's a fictionalized biography of Capt. Robbin Nikalishin, the starship Captain who made the first contact with extraterrestrials in the 28th century (some 2.5 centuries before the time of "The Termite Queen"). I already posted the Prologue to that book, which you can read here, and Chapter 1, available here.  At that latter link, you can see my drawing of Capt. Nikalishin.
       Chapter 2 is a flashback, taking us through the birth and early childhood of the Captain.  Personally, I think it's one of my more effective pieces of writing, much better than Chapter 1, which was totally devoted to exposition -- presenting backstory. (However, if I were actually publishing the book, I would probably do some more revision first.) One of the problems with Chapter 1 was that I didn't know the characters yet.  I knew where I was going in the plot, obviously, but the characters were still skeletal, still improvisational.  However, I've had 50 page views on Chapter 1, so maybe somebody read it.  I promise you'll like Chapter 2 even more.

Chapter 2: How Robbin Nikalishin Got His Name

(November 2737, 80 km from Bell Horizon,
Barsilia Section, South Ammerik)
       Roberto Haysus Vargas was born in Mount Vid Precinct in Arentina on the 31st of October in the year 2729.  His father, a pampas-raised Arentine named Manual Vargas, was an agrobiologist with QuadGov, specializing in the rehabilitation of worn-out lands.  So it happened that when his son was four months old, Vargas was dispatched to Barsilia Section to help run an experimental plantation of fruit palms, with the purpose of replacing old maize and soy plantations with something friendlier to Barsilia’s environment.  Thus the boy never formed any attachment to the place of his birth.

       His mother bore the name of Sterling Nikalishin.  Her ancestors had come from Russa, migrating into Western Uropia during the time of the Techno-Warlords, then fleeing to Britan when the bombs that had wiped out the Franco-Jerman Federation began to fall.  That had been over 300 years ago and the Nikalishin lineage had become stoutly British, although the family had resisted the pressure to “anglify” its name during the 27th century’s Campaign of Cultural Unification. 

       Upon completing prep, Sterling attended a tech school, studying Spainish and information technology with the intent of becoming an interpreter and transcriptionist.  She hungered for an adventure in a far-away place and hoped to get a posting in an overseas installation.  The Earth Unification Charter was less than forty years old at that time, and the implementation of a Pan-Global government remained a work in progress.  Segments of the Earth such as Britan and Midammerik that prided themselves on possessing an unusually enlightened heritage had not quite lost their distrust for the less homogenized lands in other sectors of the Earth and still maintained delegations in those parts to keep an eye on their interests there.  Sterling had gazed in fascination at the llamas and scarlet macaws in the Lunden Zoological Park and became infatuated with the prospect of visiting them on their home turf.

       When she received her assignment, however, she found herself nowhere near llamas and parrots, but in Bunair in Arentina Section, the capital of the Southwest Quadrisphere, a cosmopolitan city with a decent climate.  She ventured on a couple of excursions to the Andean West and the tropical North and quickly became disillusioned and quite relieved to return to a comfortable city life.  She was put to work as a translator in QuadGov’s Agribusiness Division and planned to return to Britan in a year when her contract expired.  Then she met Manual Vargas.

       He was a rough-talking, sexy outdoorsman, quite different from any man she had ever known, and before she could fully understand what was happening, she was pregnant.  She made a fuss and Manual gave in and signed a nuptial contract with her.  He had family living in Mount Vid and so, when the baby was born, they were waiting in that precinct for Manual’s next assignment to come through.

       And so Sterling found herself transplanted to that tropical North that she found disagreeable, dwelling in a village complex prosaically called Plantação das Palmas, número dois, or simply Dois Palmas, some two hours by rail from Bell Horizon.  Fortunately, Vargas was a supervisor and so the young family was allocated a cottage to themselves and was spared the need to live in the communal barracks with the native field workers and overseers.

       The plantation had been purposely located at no great distance from the Devastation Zone of Regioneiro so as to study the effects of slightly contaminated soil and water on the crops.  During the Apocalyptical the city of Regioneiro itself had been pelted by so many radiant bombs that 350 years later it still remained too “hot” for rehabilitation.  All the food and water necessary for human consumption was transported into Dois Palmas; the surrounding environment had been certified safe for habitation, but a good deal of controversy still lingered about that.  Half the population of Bell Horizon had died during the Wars even though the city itself had escaped a direct attack, and the entire surrounding Prefecture continued to suffer a cancer rate three times higher than normal.  The local population was impoverished and poorly educated, speaking little Inge and only the pidgin dialect of Spainish native to Barsilia, which Sterling could hardly understand.  Hatred for the situation in which she had trapped herself soon began to smolder within her.
*          *          *
       When Robbie Vargas was five years old, some of the village children made fun of his mother’s given name, calling it meaningless.  He bloodied a couple of noses and had his own bloodied in return.  “What does that mean – ‘Sterling’?” he asked his mother as she cleaned him up.
       She told him it was another word for "silver" and he looked up at her tall, slender form and said, “I like that.  You look just like that.”
       She only laughed and didn’t take him seriously.  But he meant it seriously; she almost always wore white or pale gray or creamy beige – an absence of color that glimmered in the dark when she would bend over to kiss him and tuck him up at night.  Her hair was a fine pale blonde and it would be hanging loose when she came to him, brushing his face like spun moonbeams.  Even her eyes were gray, and they seemed to carry glimmers in them, like tiny facets cut in stainless steel.  There was not a great deal of beauty in the place where they lived, and the boy thought his mother was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen, or ever would.
*          *          *
       Robbie had two principal memories of his father.  One of them was positive:  it was Vargas who first introduced him to the stars. 
       When Robbie was five, they flew to Mount Vid for a visit and while they were there, Manual took his family on an excursion into Patagon.  Sterling loathed every minute of it, saying, “We live in a wilderness all the time – why would we want to waste our time tramping around in an even worse one?  Bunair has music and nice restaurants and stage shows – why can’t we enjoy some civilized pleasures?”  But she would not have considered allowing Manual to take Robbie off alone and so she was forced to go along.
       Afterward, the boy retained vague memories of guanacos and maras and sitting on a rock beside a real fire, but the thing that remained with an etched clarity in his mind was the vast and black night sky and his father holding him on his knee and pointing out the stars.  And then the naming of them – the Southern Cross, Majelan’s Galaxies, the Centaur, with Alpha Centauri twinkling in its heel … “That one is the nearest star to Earth, Roberto, and it is a lot like our sun.”
       “Do people live there?” asked Robbie breathlessly.
       “They don’t think so.  But if they did, our sun would be the eighth brightest star in their sky.”
       “I’m going to go there, Papá.”
       Vargas laughed.  “That would be a good trick!  So far, nobody’s figured out how to do it.”
       After that, Robbie wanted to do nothing but look at the night sky.  He had just discovered that something else as beautiful and untouchable as his mother did exist …
       When they returned to Dois Palmas, Sterling printed off some sky charts from the Ed Base for him, and he would go out at night with a little electric torch and his plastipaper charts to the far edge of their cottage’s yard and lie on his back and study the sky.  The exterior lighting was turned off early in the village to conserve power, so it was velvety dark in the clearing among the palm trees and the sky looked like a big game field on a port, with markers on it so thick that the pointer would never be able to pick them all out.  The stars were different here from what he had seen in Patagon, but he soon learned to love this version of the sky.  He was particularly drawn to the wandering River – the Eridanus constellation.  It, too, had a star that was not so far from Earth, called Epsilon Eridani.  The information his mother had printed out for him said that it had planets around it.  He lay and stared and made up stories about what it would be like to walk on one of those planets and talk to the alien people who lived there.
*          *          *
       The negative thing that Robbie remembered about his father was to have an equal effect on his life.  Manual Vargas was a rough man with a harsh temper, one of those men in whom alcohol induces violent behavior.  And he drank more than was smart; he wasn’t happy with his job, where he was the third supervisor, serving under a couple of women with less education than he had and whom he didn’t respect.  And he wasn’t happy with the married life; his consort believed that a contract meant he ought to behave like a proper husband and be faithful to her.  But her ethereal beauty never ceased to fascinate him and he wasn’t about to let go of her.
       These frustrations sometimes boiled over and he would take them out on his elegant, sterling silver Brit.  Robbie never forgot the first time he came home from school to find his mother with a large bruise on the side of her face.  She didn’t tell him what had happened, but it scared him, because he was pretty sure he knew the cause.
       While physical fights between Manual and Sterling were not all that common, verbal ones were a constant.  Sometimes, lying out under the stars, the boy would hear the voices of his parents through the open windows of the cottage, the deep bellow of his father, the swelling stridency of his mother, the tones rising and falling like the voices of wild animals in the night.  Then he would crush his face between his hands and stick his thumbs into his ears to deafen himself to the harsh realities of Earth, and he would stare at the stars and name them to himself.  “Beteljewz … Rigel … Achernar – that’s Alpha Eridani … Cursa – that’s Beta Eridani … Zaurak – that’s Gamma Eridani … Acamar – that’s Theta Eridani … and the one that doesn’t have a special name – Epsilon Eridani, where the aliens live … ”
       One night while he was doing this, he didn’t hear his father calling to him to come in.  All he knew was that suddenly the big man was there, towering over him, yelling at him, jerking him off the ground, pitching him across the yard.  The next thing he knew he was lying on an examining table at the village clinic, with a bad pain in his head and his silvery mother standing there in the midst of MedTechs who wore garish green tunics.  She was holding his hand and whispering his name.
       All his limbs convulsed, but the Techs pushed him back gently.  “Lie still, hijo, you may have a concussion.  Do you see this light?  Can you follow it with your eyes?”
       “What happened, Mummy?” he said, clutching at her hand.
       “Your father did this.  He threw you across the yard and you landed on a rake,” she said in a low, quivering voice, not caring who heard her.
       “Are you going to press charges, Ms. Vargas?” asked one of the doctors.  “Do you want us to send Security out to your compound?’
       “No,” said Sterling, “Don’t send them.  I’m not going to press charges.”
       To his dying day, Robbie carried the scar of his father’s intemperance above his left ear, although when his hair grew full, it was hidden from view.
       They kept him at the clinic overnight, and the next day Sterling took him home.  “He hurts you, too, doesn’t he, Mummy?” Robbie said, feeling very shaky.  “Is he going to be there?  If he is, I’m going to beat him up.” 
       “No, you aren’t,” his mother said sharply.  “You’re going to be very quiet and do exactly what I tell you to do.  I told him … I told him I could stand anything myself, but if he ever laid a hand on … ”  And then she fell silent, and Robbie never said another word.
       Vargas stayed in the fields all that day, perhaps afraid to face what he had done.  In the afternoon, Sterling left Robbie locked up in the stifling house and went down to the native village for a while.  She came back with a little packet in her hands and Robbie didn’t ask what it was.  He still felt woozy and was perfectly content to remain in his room lying on the bed.
       He had fallen asleep when Sterling came in and woke him.  “I want you to come out and have some supper.”
       “It’s late for supper,” Robbie said, rubbing his eyes.  “How come we didn’t have it earlier?”
       “Just do as I tell you.”
       So he did.  As he tried to eat his maize mush and soymilk, his mother fussed about in the bedroom she shared with her consort.  He got up and went to the door, and realized with a sort of thudding shock that his father was lying on the bed.  Robbie had approached him before Sterling realized he was there.  Manual Vargas was lying on his back with his mouth gaping open and one arm hanging off the bed.
       Hearing Robbie’s caught breath, Sterling jumped over, seized his arm, and dragged him out of the room.
       “Mummy, is he dead?  He looks dead … ”
       “Of course he’s not dead.  Couldn’t you see him breathing?  What do you think – your mother’s an idiot?  You think I want to spend the rest of my life in some rotten South Ammeriken prison?  It’s just a drug – a sleeping compound I got from the natives.  It’ll keep him unconscious probably till noon tomorrow, at least.”
       “And then what?” asked Robbie, staring at her.
       “And then we’ll be gone.”  She took him by the shoulders and steered him toward his room, jamming a small valise into his hands.  “Robbie, I want you to fill this with some clothes – all your socks and underwear, a pair of closed shoes, three shirts, and a couple of pairs of long pants … yes, long pants!  Where we’re going, it’s not going to be as warm as here.  And pick one toy to take.  That’s all you can take – there’s not room for any more.  Just one, understand?  Come out when you’re done.”
      “Mummy, where are we going?”
       But she was already off doing other things.
       So Robbie filled the suitcase, then stood looking at his toys.  He was only eight years old and they represented his whole life.  “Mummy, do the star-charts count?”
       She didn’t hear him, so he slipped them under the clothes at the bottom of the bag.  Surely they could be counted as schoolwork and not as toys.  Then he picked up the stuffed animal he still slept with.  It was meant to be a replica of the extinct spectacled bear.
       Something caught his eye – a glint from the top of the dresser.  It was a star, mounted at the tip of a thin metallic rod that projected from the nose of a space plane.  The nose pointed upward, as if it were flying toward the star.  The rod was so thin that it looked as if the star hung there without support.
       He stared at the plane and he stared at the bear.
       Sterling called, “Robbie, are you nearly ready?”
       “Coming.”  Hastily, he chucked the bear under the bed, grabbed the plane, detached the rod and the star, and placed the three pieces of the toy in the valise.  It wouldn’t close, so he threw half the socks after the bear and latched the valise.  Then he turned his back on his childhood.
*          *          *
       They walked fast through the darkness, each carrying a valise.  Robbie’s seemed awfully heavy; the taped gash on the side of his head throbbed and he felt a little dizzy.  He stumbled and his mother’s hand gripped his shoulder.
       “You all right, Robbie?  I’d carry you if I could, but I just can’t manage … ”
       “I’m all right.  I’m too big to be carried, anyway.”  He half wished she would hold his hand, but he would have died before he asked her.  But she continued to grip his shoulder and that helped. 
       “Where’s your bear?” she said.
       He swallowed.  “You said, only one toy.  I brought the space plane.”
       “Oh …  Robbie, I really didn’t mean to include Specky in that.  I just expected you would carry him with you.  He’s sort of a part of you.”
        Robbie said nothing, clutching his suitcase, breathing hard.
       After a bit, she said, “I’ll get you another bear, an even nicer one.”
       “It’s all right.  I’m going to give up all that baby stuff.”
       Then he asked, “Where are we going?”
      “To the rail terminal.”
       “And then where are we going?”
       “To Bell Horizon, to the flight port.
       “Oh.  Are we going to Mount Vid?”
       And she replied, “No.  We’re not going to Mount Vid.  We’re going to Britan.”
       He felt a kind of shock in his stomach.  “Britan … that’s where you were born.”  It seemed as far away to him as Epsilon Eridani – both places where silver people came from.
       “Right.  The grandparents that you’ve never met live there.”
      He trudged along digesting this information.  “They don’t speak Spainish there, do they?”
       “No.  You’ll never speak anything but Inge after tonight.”
       They were approaching the lights of the rail terminal, and Sterling stopped suddenly and crouched down before Robbie, taking him by the shoulders and looking into his face.  “You’re going to have a new name now, too, my little son.”
       “A new name?” he repeated, feeling as though his whole world were heaving and dropping under his feet.
       “From now on, you won’t be Roberto Vargas any longer.  You’ll be Robbin Nikalishin.”
       “Oh …  Can I still be Robbie?”
       “Of course.  Robbie is an even better nickname for Robbin than for Roberto.”
       “And Nikalishin … that’s your name.”
       “That’s right.”
       Breathlessly, he said, “What about my middle name?  What about Haysus?”
       She hesitated.  “You ought to keep that, maybe.  It’s the name of that headless god that stands on the hill over the harbor at Regioneiro.  I suppose it couldn’t hurt for you to carry the name of a god.”
       She stood up and they set off into the environs of the terminal.  “Robbin Haysus Nikalishin,” he mumbled, and as Sterling arranged for the ticket and they took seats on the waiting platform, he continued to mutter at intervals, “I’m Robbin Haysus Nikalishin.”
Presently, the train pulled in and they boarded – the silver woman and the boy surnamed for a god.
Coming next: 
Chapter 3: The Captain Receives an Unexpected Assignment